Women Take the Plunge!

This review originally appeared in NEPCA Journal.

Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870-1926. By Lisa Bier. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7864-4028-3. 220 pp. + photos, notes, bibliography, index.

Who knew that the simple act of taking a dip would make such a splash in reconfiguring American gender roles? Lisa Bier, a librarian at Southern Connecticut State University, reminds us that today’s female Olympians owe their right to compete to a pioneering generation of strong-willed women who pushed beyond societal disapproval and slowly shed clothing layers, sexism, and Victorian strictures.
Bier opens with a refreshingly honest admission–that she’s a slow writer and researcher. Her original intent was to write a biography of Gertrude Ederle, the plucky 20-year-old who, in 1926, became the first woman to swim the treacherous English Channel. Before she could complete that work, however, several other biographies hit the market. Much like Ederle, who failed in her first attempt at the Channel, Bier rethought her plan. We can be glad that she did; Fighting the Current gives Ederle’s feat a deeper context than it might otherwise have had.
Swimming is, today, such a routine activity that it may surprise readers to learn that aquatic women were rare for much of Western history. Indeed, among the joys of Bier’s book are the small details that we often overlook. Even most fishermen’s wives knew how to swim, though they lived by the coast and routinely rowed out to sea in small boats. Clothing proved a major obstacle. Boys and men often stripped naked to take the plunge, but society would countenance no such boldness from women. Many readers have probably laughed at old photos of 19th century bathing costumes for women, but have we stopped to consider that these were for the beach, not the water? As Bier relates, many of these were made of wool and, once wet, would have added as much as 45 pounds to a swimmer’s body weight. That is, if she could stay afloat at all; many of the costumes billowed and filled with water. Late Victorian water maidens fought knockdown battles with moralists merely for the right to strip off stockings and ditch attached skirts! Those who wished to swim competitively–as opposed to paddling about in sex-segregated bathing platforms in an age before most homes had running water–faced challenges such as aspersions on their femininity, dire medical prognoses, and a host of structural obstacles.
Obstacles came in both physical and ideological forms. There were few swimming pools in the late 19th century, nor were there many water treatment facilities. Urban swimmers, such as those who formed the influential New York Women’s Swimming Association, dove into rivers fouled with sewage, dead animals, and toxic waste. And even when young women proved their mettle in various amateur races and exhibitions they faced institutional discrimination. Pierre de Coubertin created the modern Olympic games in 1896, but women were barred; none would swim until the 1920 Antwerp games.
Bier’s story is one of women’s steely determination to dive through gender barriers. It was this, after all, that made Ederle’s feat possible in the first place. Ederle is the focus of the final third of the book, but most readers are likely to find more revelations in the short biographies of less-remembered pioneers such as Charlotte Boyle, Ethel Golding, Annette Kellerman, Helen Meany, Rose Pitonof, Ailenn Riggin, and Helen Wainwright. As for Ederle, the story of her post-Channel life is, in many ways, as fascinating as her big swim. Suffice it to say, Ederle was an early victim of celebrity and what we today call paparazzi culture.
Bier is strongest when telling stories and recounting detail, though one longs for a bit more hard-hitting analysis in the book. For instance, the National Women’s Lifesaving League helped smooth the waters for competitive swimmers. Placing it in the context of social housekeeping theory would help illumine why that was able to do so. Nor does Bier pay attention to sexuality; part of the brief against women’s swimming clubs involved whispered rumors of lesbianism. Nonetheless, this seemingly modest book is so rich that it sneaks up on you like a racer making a charge to the finish.
Rob Weir

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